Everyone is writing TV pilots

One thing I noticed at AFF was that a LOT of people are writing TV pilots. It seems like every aspiring-to-be-professional writer I met had entered a pilot into the screenwriting contest or was working on a pilot or was trying to break into TV with their pilot. 

I had a conversation with a woman who was developing a pilot for a show that was an autobiographical story of how she found love later in life. I liked the story. I think it would be a good rom-com.

I asked her if it wouldn’t be better as a movie. As someone who lives in Austin, she has virtually no chance of that pilot getting made. First it has to be a great concept. I like the idea but it’s not like earth-shattering and the audience is somewhat limited. 

Second, she has to get the idea into the hands of people that can make it a reality, which is basically a few different studios or Netflix or Amazon or Apple. 

She doesn’t really have connections there. And it’s very rare that a first-time writer just gets a show made like that.

I told her that it would be much easier to make as a movie. You just have to find a producer that wants to make it. It’s much easier to find an indie producer than a willing TV executive, especially since there are so many possible budget ranges. You could do her idea for $200k, $500k, $1 million, or $20 million. 

It’s still hard; it’s still a longshot. I just see a better path there. And it’s her story. She wants it to be told. You can make a movie through sheer force of will. You cannot make a TV show that way. There are just too many factors outside of your control.

She could also write a play, a really funny play. All of these strategies hinge on the material being really good, although honestly, the indie feature route has the least reliance on having a good script.

A lot of the people with pilots in Austin were people that lived in not Los Angeles. It’s pretty damn hard to break into TV if you’re not in Los Angeles. I’m not really sure what their career strategy is. Maybe it’s submitting to contests, hoping to win one that gets them a manager? There are many ways in but I know that if my main goal in life was to write for television that I would have moved to L.A. years ago. 

I went to a panel with the director of filmmaker labs at Film Independent. She said that comedy features are very much underrepresented in their submissions for the screenwriting lab.

I think everyone who wants to write comedy went over to the pilot side, which in one way makes sense because there are more writing jobs in TV, but then again, there’s only a loose connection between the jobs and what gets you the job. 

Why not zig when others are zagging?

Two kinds of writing advice

Sometimes I will find myself yelling in my head, in response to some writing advice I read on the internet. 

It goes something like this: “you idiots! you don’t need writing advice! you just need to write! sit down and fucking write! do you really think that reading what Hemingway said about the bullshit detector is going to help you, you lazy fuck, when you’re not even putting in the time!?”

That’s a lot of yelling, but I’m yelling at myself.

The first kind of writing advice is designed to get you to sit down and actually write. To create space in your day or your life to do the work. To get words on the page, no matter how not good they are. This advice often has an inspirational or self-help feel to it, and for good reason. You want to write, but you’re afraid for any number of reasons and you haven’t started to put in the time.

I listened to The War of Art once and that more or less rewired my brain to write every day. It’s a powerful book.

The second kind of writing advice is more practical or technical. It’s for people that are already doing the work, putting in the time, pumping out the words. Advice of this variety has to do with how to write an outline or develop a character or create suspense or write better dialogue.

Type II advice doesn’t really mean anything if you haven’t created a space to work within. 

You can have my movie-watching big data

One of the ways in which people speculated (fantasized?) about MoviePass making money was through “big data”.

People seem generally uneasy whenever a company has your little data and combines it with everyone else’s little data to make big data, which is pretty much all the time because all the companies are collecting your data and many are sharing it around and integrating it with their data.

When it comes to MoviePass or Sinemia, I’m actually pretty optimistic about the prospects of them having my data. 

Here’s my thinking: every time I go to see a movie, it’s like a vote for that kind of movie. It’s clear from the MoviePass experience that one of their long-term goals was to start financing and distributing films (like American Animals, which was pretty good I have to say. If only MoviePass were less good at losing money, we might have had more of these).

And if they discover that, hey, there’s like this whole market out there for movies for adults who like good, well-written stories about adult-y things beyond the ken of comic books, then they might start financing and distributing more of these movies and they can market them directly to me via the app.

Let’s try this MoviePass thing again (Sinemia)

As fun as the MoviePass debacle was, it left me in the undesirable position of paying retail price for movies.

There’s a new company that wants to subsidize our movie watching, despite my not very elastic demand curve for movie-theater-going (I’m out here shouting that everyone should be seeing more movies in theaters! You’ve been tricked! Binge-watching at home while on your phone is NOT good for your soul!)

The new company is Sinemia. Here is a link to sign up (you’ll get a $5 credit if you use that link and I’ll get a $10 credit).

I guess you get the name Sinemia by taking Cinema and replacing the C with an ‘S’ and then adding an ‘i’ in there. Do people even try when naming companies now? Is ‘sin’ supposed to have some kind of biblical meaning? 

Anyway. I have nothing to say about the experience yet because I just signed up and haven’t used the service yet. On the positive side, they seem interested in subsidizing my movie-going.

Stories get you through

Last week I finished a freelance gig that started in mid-July. It was an intense gig with long hours and many working weekends. On the weekends where I didn’t have to work, I was on call.

It was tough and stressful and often miserable. There were good times too and I met good people there.

I’ve been thinking in the last few days how I got through it. Because, honestly, without going into details, it was pretty miserable. And it meant not having a Chicago summer.1

Here are some of the reasons I didn’t quit:

  • It’s only 3.5 months, anyone get through something like that.
  • You made a commitment, keeping your word is important.
  • The money is really good.
  • I need the money.
  • I don’t want to let the team down.
  • I’m learning a lot.
  • I’m working for an important cause; it’s important that I do my part.

Those are all good reasons, right?

What’s interesting is that depending on who I’m talking to, I might offer a different reason for why I did it. We tailor the stories we tell, depending on the audience, and I think for two reasons: one is to make the story more interesting and two is to make ourselves sound better.

The story you tell yourself about why you are doing it, that’s what gets you through.

And all of those stories worked for me at one point or another during the experience. But the one that persisted, the one that really kept me going was about the freedom. I’m sacrificing a lot of freedom right now for a lot more freedom down the road.

And sitting here on a Friday morning with nowhere to be and nothing to do, I have to say that I made the right choice. That sweet sweet taste of freedom, the freedom to work on whatever I want. I have about three to six months of runway before I have to take another job (assuming I don’t pick up any new freelance work) and that means I’m free to write every morning, for hours at a time.

I could jump on the train and fly to another city right now if I felt like it. I’m not going to, but I like the feeling.

 


  1. I spent June directing a feature film, then I went to Scotland for a week in July and then started the job when I got back 

Rules for work

Reminders for myself as I return to daily work (writing):

  1. Work every day. Compound interest. The Daily.
  2. Work with purpose. Deliberate practice.
  3. Work deeply.
  4. Process over results.
  5. Take risks. Stop playing it safe.
  6. Dream big.
  7. Ship your work.

What am I forgetting?

Do screenwriting contests matter?

The consensus from Austin Film Festival (and honestly, anyone working in Hollywood that I’ve ever talked to or heard on a podcast) was that only two matter: if you’re a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship or at AFF.

At least 90% of of these contests exist to make money, not to help you. They won’t get you an agent and they won’t impress people.

Please stop throwing your money away.

A guide to SAG for indie film producers

I wrote a detailed guide for indie producers on how to navigate the SAG process from application to post-production. There’s a lot of practical information in it, gleaned from my own experience dealing with SAG contracts. And it lays out everything you need to do, in the correct order.

The SAG process is actually pretty easy to navigate once you understand it and have gone through it once. The goal of the guide is to take away the anxiety and uncertainty for people new to the process so they don’t have to fear working with the union.

I’m selling it rather than giving it away for free because, well, it was a lot of work to put together. At only $25, it’s an absolute steal if it saves you ten hours and a few headaches.

If you’re working on a short film or an ultra low budget feature (under $250k budget) and you’re dealing with SAG for the first time, then check it out.

Skill vs talent (in screenwriting)

I was in Austin last week for the Austin Film Festival. It was a great time. The centerpiece of the festival is the four-day screenwriting conference, which means panels, networking, and parties.

As an aside: some of the panels were great and some were just OK. The panels I didn’t like were mostly because of a moderator that couldn’t or didn’t seem to understand the audience and what we wanted to hear. Moderating is an underrated skill.

On one of the panels, a literary manager spoke of the difference between skill and talent.

Basically he said, you need both to succeed as a screenwriter.

But there are a lot of people that have good careers with lots of skill and not much talent. These are writers who are not necessarily visionaries, but they are skilled in writing in someone else’s voice or in executing a formula. They would tend to work on less innovative shows or movies. They are probably what you would call a hack? I don’t know, I don’t really go around calling people hacks. The manager didn’t use that term.

People with lots of talent and no skill on the other hand, they can’t succeed. You need SOME skill. Actually, you need a fair amount. If you have no skill, then your talent is squandered. It can’t be harnessed. You have things to express but don’t know how to express them skillfully. Great stories, poorly told. Etc.

The high-skill, low-talent person, well, they can tell the hell out of a not great story.

A genius is someone with extraordinary talent (talent encompasses vision and intelligence and creativity and many other traits).

I’m simplifying a bit obviously.

Here’s a 2×2:

Obviously my design skills are low-skill, high-talent.

Can you become more skilled? Yes, definitely, that’s just deliberate practice over a long period of time.

Can you become more talented? ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Just kidding. I don’t know. I imagine that talent is an amalgam of many factors: genetics, upbringing, openness, what you read and who you spend time with and what your influences are and what you see and know about the culture and history and so many other factors with a dose of just general intelligence thrown in.

Content

Content.

I love good content.

I’m a content creator.

This is good content.

Have you watched the show on Netflix? It’s such good content.

It’s hard being a content creator today.

As a content creator, I

I love content.

Mmmm Netflix has so much good content.

Did you see Sorry to Bother You? It was great content!

I saw Eight Grade I thought it was great content.

What the fuck is content?

Content is a commodity.

Stop saying content.